Wang Jianing never cares about the price tag when it comes to spending on her cat - a Russian blue named Doudou - and two dogs - a toy poodle and Maltese named Yomi and Neinei, respectively. Whether it is food, clothing, Italian-made shampoo, or the occasional spa visit, the 24-year-old pet owner in the eastern Chinese city of Hefei just opens her wallet and hands over the money "whenever there is a need".
The three pets' most recent "need" is a feast for the upcoming Lunar New Year's Eve on January 31. For the major family occasion, Wang placed an online order for a 399 yuan (US$62.7) meal set to share among the canines and feline. The set includes carrot soup, omelette rice shaped like a tiger's head, stuffed tofu, mussels, cheesy shrimps, pumpkin cheese biscuits, meaty cupcakes, as well as dim sum made with chicken, cod, duck, and purple yam.
"Lunar New Year is coming soon, and I want my fur babies to have a feel of the holiday ritual as well," Wang said. "I'll feel very happy if I can enjoy the big meal with them."
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A 399-yuan meal set from pet food seller Fluffy Pet has dishes including dim sum, shrimps, and omelette rice, among other delicacies. Photo: Handout alt=A 399-yuan meal set from pet food seller Fluffy Pet has dishes including dim sum, shrimps, and omelette rice, among other delicacies. Photo: Handout>
Like Wang, many people in China consider their pets as friends, or even children, according to market research firm Mintel. "Owners treat their pets like humans emotionally. As a result, there is an increased selection of pet food resembling human food," said Pepper Peng, a food and drink analyst at Mintel.
After a rapid period of growth between 2011 and 2020, China's pet market entered a mature phase in 2021, domestic market research firm iResearch wrote in a recent report. During this new phase, a business ecosystem is expected to emerge around the entire life cycle of pets, the firm said. Pet food, the largest segment with 40 per cent of total spending, is likely to come in a wider variety of products that are open to customisation.
In 2021, China's retail market value for pet food was estimated at 29.8 billion yuan, more than doubled the value in 2015, according to Mintel. In 2025, it is expected to reach 42.8 billion yuan. While the growth momentum has slowed in recent years, China's pet food market is forecast to increase 10 per cent annually on average over the next two years, compared to 4 per cent in the United States.
The expanding pet economy has fostered the growth of a stream of entrepreneurs like Jin Shangbao, who switched from running an online fitness snack business to making and selling pet food through his direct-to-consumer store Mr Tail in 2017. This year, he is offering Lunar New Year pet meals, and from previous experiences, he thinks they will be a hit with pet owners.
"When we released dumplings for the Dragon Boat Festival and mooncakes for Mid-Autumn Festival, they both went viral," said the Zhejiang-based merchant and pet owner, referring to two other traditional holidays in China. "People's living standards have improved, and they are willing to splurge on their pets."
Jin offers four meal sets priced between 49.9 yuan and 108 yuan, consisting of various combinations of meat dumplings, rice dumplings, rice cakes, biscuits, dried fish, and dried sesame-flavoured cheese strings. To give them a festival feel, he also includes in each order Spring Festival couplets - two-line poems written on two pieces of red paper that Chinese people put on their front doors for good luck.
Mr Tail said it includes couplets in each Lunar New Year pet food order. Photo: Handout alt=Mr Tail said it includes couplets in each Lunar New Year pet food order. Photo: Handout>
Jin, who had to close his former business because of food safety issues from snack suppliers, said he learned a lesson and now makes the pet food himself.
Most of his customers are Gen Z, and around 70 per cent are women, Jin said. He said he receives around 1,000 orders a day, with half of them coming from Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok that is owned by ByteDance. Tencent Holdings' WeChat accounts for one-third of the orders, and the rest comes from Taobao, the e-commerce platform operated by South China Morning Post owner Alibaba Group Holding.
Young people are used to searching for and sharing new products on Douyin and Taobao, according to Mintel's Peng. "Douyin is distinguished from other platforms by its largely young user base, as well as novel ideas and products, which in turn attract more young consumers," she said.
Fluffy Pet, where Wang buys her pet food, launched its Lunar New Year's Eve pet meals in 2018. Founder and owner Liao Cuimin said her customers are also mostly millennials and Gen-Z living in big cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, and around 80 per cent of them are women.
Liao started her business on Taobao in 2017, when few shops offered elaborate pet meals. She opened a bricks-and-mortar store two years later. "Some customers told us that if the pets do not have their own food during the family reunion meal, the humans may feed them what is on the table and mess up the animals' stomachs," Liao said.
A sample of Lunar New Year food from Mr Tail made for pets. Photo: Handout alt=A sample of Lunar New Year food from Mr Tail made for pets. Photo: Handout>
The direct-to-consumer nature of Jin and Liao's businesses ensures that they can produce and sell according to demand, an advantage that some other sellers do not have. If merchants rely on third-party suppliers, overstocking may become a concern because seasonal food expires in two to three months, Jin said.
Business competition is limited for now because potential rivals are still observing the market reaction, Jin said. There are around two dozen sellers of Lunar New Year's Eve pet meals on Taobao, while it is unclear how many there are on Douyin, where some products are also sold indirectly through distributors and influencers. Both platforms said they do not collect statistics on Luna New Year meal sets.
Riding on the growing demand, Jin also plans to sell rice balls for the Lantern Festival, which this year comes a day after Valentine's Day. While festive pet food remains a niche market, Jin believes it has huge potential for growth through online channels, given the tendency for quirky products to attract eyeballs on the internet.
"There will be a lot more competitors who sell seasonal pet food, as users of platforms such as Douyin and Taobao keep sharing related content," Jin said.
This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2022 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.
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